Category: sci-fi

Raccoons in the Rides

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A week ago the Disnleyland park (specifically Disney California Adventures) in Anaheim, CA introduced the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout last week. The attraction replaced the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride which had been in that park since 2004 (and was a duplicate of the ride which opening in Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida back in 1994.)  Making use of the functions of the old structure, the ride retains the rapid up-down movement of its old incarnation with a fresh coat of Guardians of the Galaxy (specifically the movie incarnation) paint.

The most important thing is that it stars Rocket Raccoon! You see, the scenario for the ride is that Taneleer Tivan a.k.a., The Collector (played by an Benicio Del Toro in the first Guardians movie, but by some stand-in during the video segments of the ride) has captured the Guardians of the Galaxy and is displaying them in his collection. As the audience is given a tour of his facility, Rocket escapes and hijacks their ride to get his friends free. The even better part is rather than going cheap and just having Bradley Cooper provide some voiceover and have the furry menace appear on screen occasionally, they’ve actually produced an animatronic Rocket that runs around and talks to the audience.

As per usual, Disney also put a lot of effort into the dressings for the ride, with the queue being a winding tour of the Collector’s Collection, displaying iconic relics from the Marvel Universe. It’s apparently a Marvel Fanboy’s dream come true. Too bad I don’t get to California very often. There are currently no plans to replace Tower of Terror in Florida with the Guardians ride, either.

Source: Variety

Raccoons are Moving on Up

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Yesterday was International Raccoon Appreciation Day. I celebrated by watching Guardians of the Galaxy. I also took the time to read a great article from Slate that details the rapidly developing raccoon population and how humankind is inadvertently helping them become smarter and bolder. Some excerpts are below:

On how urban and rural raccoons differ

She tracked urban raccoons outfitted with GPS collars and found that they avoided crossing major roads, as if they’d learned to avoid cars. She placed tough-to-open garbage cans in both the city and country, with delicious treats like cat food at the bottom, and found the urban raccoons, for the most part, could solve the puzzle, while the rural ones had no success whatsoever.

On the need to study raccoon psychology further

“I would put their little brains up again pretty much anything,” MacDonald says. Studies from the early 1900s put raccoons near monkeys—and ahead of cats and dogs—on several measures of intelligence. (Raccoon brains are seriously overdue for study. Early comparative psychologists were fascinated by them, according to a short history of the topic, but their work devolved into academic squabbles, and there hasn’t been a lot of research into raccoon psychology since.)

On being the most American of animals

Besides, just what constitutes a pest depends on whom you’re asking. Native to the New World, raccoons stand for “wilderness and freedom … self-reliance and adaptability,” argued a 1963 Harper’s piece that called them more American than the bald eagle. One writer, pointing out how traits like adaptability and opportunism are shared by humans and raccoons, asks: “[I]f we reject animals for their destructive habits, at what point do we turn the gaze on ourselves?”

Read the full article here.

Goodbye Nonexistant World

Goodbye Nonexistant World

I recently made a marathon watching of the anime series Steins;Gate.  It had been in my backlog of the (few) anime series in my too-watch list for quite a while now.  It’s a time travel series, after all, and there’s nothing that will pique my interest more than time travel (although even the allure of that wasn’t enough to get to me to watch Project Almanac, which by most accounts was a brain dead attempt at such heady material.)  I learned that I apparently have considerably less tolerance for the more anime-aspects of most anime.  For instance I was pretty convinced that the “loveable” character was, in fact, mentally handicapped.  However her more idiotic aspects were probably just endearing to the average Japanese audience member.  Similarly, I found the characters to not be believable for their ages.  At 19, one of them had gone to college (or failed out?) and another was some neuroscience (and also physics?) genius delivering lectures at 19 (maybe even 18.)  I don’t know, I would have been able to buy into these characters were they a little older. Although if they were older, some of their eccentricities would be even less tolerable.

Also, the idea of every girl in the lineup of characters (and the majority of the characters are girls) jonesing for the protagonist was also painfully anime.  It all made sense when I learned the series was based on a visual novel focused on romancing the girls.

I just came for the time travel!  Also the blending of the fictional scenario with the “reality” of the John Titor urban legend, which I thought was a very cool idea. Although this leads to the show’s more jarring aspects, shifting from cartoon zaniness to grimdark end of the world horror without a moment’s notice.

However, it reminded me of a trope that I’ve really grown to find deeply Romantic in time travel fiction: the last members of a lost timeline.

Throughout the series, the main character of Okabe keeps altering the past (sometimes recent, sometimes not) and occasionally gets caught in loops of a day or so.  During these, he gets to know his friends in different ways.  However each time he’s forced to reset things, only he can remember the bonds he’s formed.  He really mourns the loss of some of the timelines he’s forced to abandon and it’s his burden to be the only one who will remember they existed.

In Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card there’s a great moment where the trio of characters who have gone back in time to alter the interactions between Columbus and the natives of the New World meet with each other briefly.  They drink a toast the doomed world they came from and which they’re trying to prevent by altering history.

Finally, in Replay by Ken Grimwood a man and woman are reliving their lives (multiple times, always ending with a horrific heart attack at certain age.)  After a couple of replays they meet and enjoy a lifetime together.  However they learn that each time they relive their lives, it’s for fewer years each time. As they approach the end of their times together, the woman lives the rest of a lifetime as an artist. One of her pieces is an installation consisting of video footage of places she and the man had been to in previous lives.  To anyone else in the that timeline, they were just random images, but to him it was a montage of their times together that never existed.

It’s a unique storytelling trick that can really only occur in time travel stories, one that’s beautifully poignant.  Although I supposed episodes of Star Trek such as The Next Generation’s The Inner Light or Deep Space Nine’s Hard Time are similar concepts, where the characters are deeply affected by implanted (false) memories. The distinction exists of theirs being personal realities verses the objectively real ones in the fictional time travel stories.

Love & Physics

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Christopher Nolan‘s space magnum opus Interstellar came out this weekend.  Although it had a successful weekend and has garnered mostly positive reviews, it’s proven to have some fairly divisive elements, namely its finale.

SPOILER WARNING

The brunt of criticism is on the film’s hokey thesis that there are two forces capable of transcending time and space: gravity and love.  Nobody’s arguing with the gravity side, because it’s scientific sounding and in line with the generally realistic look and feel of the film (although that’s a dodgy prospect as well.)  It’s the insistence that love acts as a binding force of the universe, allowing the character of Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, to indirectly interact with his daughter and different points in her life. Audiences can’t be blamed for accepting this as the film’s premise, because they are flat out told by characters that it’s the case.  To begin, the character of Brand, played by Anne Hathaway, insists that she feels compelled to go to her lost lover on one of the alien worlds because love may allow her to know he’s waiting for her, in defiance of time and space.  Later, echoing that speech, Cooper says that “they,” beings who built a wormhole and a black hole that are giving humanity the chance to travel away from Earth, needed him to help them because his love for his daughter was the real power that allowed for communication to the past, and not the manipulation of gravity.

Allow me to discredit the characters first, and then offer a more mundane explanation.

When Brand attempts to persuade her team to expend their fuel to go her lover on another world, she’s just experienced a rather traumatic sequence of events: she’s witnessed the death of one of her co-pilots on this venture and learned that significantly more time has passed on Earth than she anticipated.  Her speech is very impassioned, prompting even Cooper–who is also an emotional wreck because of his attachment to his family on Earth–to dismiss her justification for her hopes by reminding her that she’s a scientist.

It’s not meant to be a scientific explanation.  It’s a person desperately trying to justify something with more than just “it’s my intuition” or even worse “because it’s what I want.”

Similarly, when Coop repeats her ideas he’s in an emotionally distraught place: he’d already committed himself to dying in a back hole and then found himself inside a construct, offering him a glimpse at undoing the choices he’d made that lead him there but being denied.  As he drifted through a tesseract which allowed glimpses into his daughter’s room at every moment of her life, he said something that made me think of an alternate to the “power of love” meme attached to this movie.  Now, excuse me, I need to paraphrase because I don’t recall the dialogue verbatim:

They need love, my love of my daughter, to help them navigate this construct.  They can reach her at any time, but because they’re five-dimensional beings not bound by time, they can’t quite comprehend how to deal with us and our limited perspective.

It’s not “love.” It’s research. The “they” who created the black hole/tesseract are referred to as five-dimensional beings (which Coop surmises are in fact highly evolved humans) who can freely manipulate time and gravity.  They need Coop to deliver a message to his daughter, the final part of an equation that would set humanity down the path of manipulating time and gravity. They, far in the future, know she’s the one who came up with the formula and they are able to establish a means of communicating with her, however they are too advanced to communicate with her directly (I mean, have you tried to comprehend Middle English?) but, as Coop said, because they’d have trouble comprehending her existence (how can one know the right time to deliver a message when time is a fluid concept for them?).  Coop wasn’t providing the final ingredient of “love” to make their time machine work; he was acting as a subject matter expert.  He was able to navigate the endless doorways into her life and recognize when the appropriate time and way to deliver a message was, not because of love per se, but because he knew her specifically and what it was to be human at that time.

Unfortunately, “subject matter expert” doesn’t play so well on the big screen.  So instead we get the much more emotional “love” as short hand.  Sadly, that brings with it all sorts of nonsense connotations of hokum like the Law of Attraction.  This is what’s made audiences balk at the movie. Sadly, reducing the connection between a father and daughter to “I know her well” might have been even more disappointing.

It’s Been a Surprisingly Good Year for Movies

Picture 009Image from Green People Soup

This is the first year in a long time that I’ve been gainfully employed.  In previous years, movies (more so than video games, peculiarly) were kind of a form of escapism for me from the drudgery of my reality.  Two movies during those dark days in particular, Kick-Ass (it’s a shame how the sequel turned out) and Pacific Rim were ones that I latched on to.  I also became very critical of movies during that period, with my analytical mind ripping them apart in terms of bad direction, plotting, or acting.  I’m not sure why that was.

But I really hate Zak Snyder and J.J. Abrams.  Ridley Scott is kind of on my shit list, too. But then I never cared for Blade Runner all that much, and I hold the very unpopular position of liking Aliens more than Alien. At this point the snobs are probably considering my tastes in low regard, considering 1) I’m talking primarily about genre movies and 2) I’m not even liking the well-respected ones.

I approach movies from the perspective of wanting spectacle. These are movies, dammit, and while I can appreciate a well-acted drama, if it’s something that would translate just fine to a stage play (or a book!) it wasn’t really taking advantage of the medium.  At least give me an innovative shot like in Goodfellas or have some really unique set design like the 2012 Anna Karenina adaptation.

So, with me not being in as angry/emotionally crippled state and able to enjoy movies for their own sake, I have to say that looking at major theatrical releases it’s been a pretty amazing year!  Let’s run down the ones that have really struck me …

  1. The Raid 2:  If you’re looking for martial arts action, this is the movie of the year.  I was most impressed by the fact that every fight scene was kept unique, and never simply “here’s the hero facing off against another martial artist.”  Be it through employing the environment or the character’s tactics, or to some degree their emotional state each sequence was completely engaging.  On top of that, the drama on screen wasn’t simply filler between outbursts of excitement as it did a great job of establishing the stakes and motivation for each character.  As much as I love violence in my movies, I’ve hit the cynical point where I need to have a reason to care about it, and this movie provided that.
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier & Guardians of the Galaxy: Due to the interconnectedness of the Marvel cinematic universe, you could almost consider the movies one continuous series, a sort of return to the serials of yesteryear.  Also, as a continuous series, it’s held up remarkably well for being about ten films into the run.  Sure, it has its clunkers (Thor, Hulk) but even those were still entirely watchable.  I haven’t seen one yet that’s left me with a reaction of “why was that made?”  This year’s Captain America was great because it resolved the nagging issue I’d had with the terrible Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series, which was “aren’t these the bad guys?”  But both provided audiences with spectacular action sequences which fully take advantage of the fact that they’re superhero movies without completely abandoning the need to be good movies (unlike, say, Michael Bay’s Transformers) by providing fun (albeit stock) characters and a good storyline to frame all of the action.
  3. Snowpiercer:  If you’d prefer your action a little more weird, there’s this indie darling.  Very well received by critics, but practically buried by the distributor, this movie has an almost surreal quality to it as it details a brutal revolution on board a train carrying the last bastions of humanity, and all the horrors humanity brings with it.  Fascinating, exciting, and bleak; I was enthralled the whole time.
  4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  I might be a little impartial on this one as I’ve been a big fan of Planet of the Apes movies for a long time.  I have fond memories of discovering the series over the period of a month or two on the Disney Channel back in high school and being surprised by how good they really were. I enjoyed 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes–misguided homages aside–and was eagerly awaiting this year’s sequel.  What amazed me was how the whole thing played out almost like a foreign film, especially with the wordless opening sequence and the eschewing of speaking apes until later in the movie.  It’s not a flick that relies on action sequences, with the main one, the assault on the human shelter, being downright terrifying with its use of lighting and hopelessness against unexpectedly insurmountable odds.
  5. Edge of Tomorrow: You know, I like Tom Cruise.  This is funny, because the stuff from when he was really famous never interested me much (notoriety of Top Gun notwithstanding.)  But over the past few years, he’s proven to have a keen eye for picking projects which, while hardly brilliant, never fail to be eminently watchable. From the action tour-de-force that was Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (seriously, the whole sequence in Mumbai is three action sequences seamlessly woven together into one tense chunk of movie) to the largely forgettable (but never boring) Jack Reacher, I’m a total mark for his work at this point.  So Edge of Tomorrow proved to be a surprisingly sharp sci fi action movie that brings in enough levity to keep the proceedings going and from ever getting too overwhelming.   Probably less intellectual than Oblivion (which itself was hardly taxing, but again, totally watchable) but still an under-rated science fiction entry, it’s a shame audiences passed this one by in favor of crap.  Heck, it did so poorly that the studio is distancing the movie from itself for its video release.